More and More Little Wins

Since I read Nudge by Richard Thaler a few years back, I’ve been happily surprised how quickly the idea of “nudges” is spreading around the world. In a recent New York Times piece, David Brooks catalogues many successful nudges, notably in places like Kenya and Zambia. David Cameron is a noted supporter of using the gleanings of behavior economics to get citizens in the UK to “do good by default.”

The way nudges work is that governments and organizations set up “decision architecture” such that the default option–or an easy option–has a socially beneficial outcome. A well known nudge is making the default option in organ donation “yes.” (In the past the default option was nearly always “no organ donation.”) A more whimsical one is to put some kind of target–say a picture of a fly or seashell–inside men’s urinals to induce them to aim better.

The most important findings of behavioral economics are that humans often do not make rational decisions…but they’re predictably irrational (in the words of scholar Daniel Ariely).  Scientists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann pioneered studies that showed subtle biases and decision-making “errors” that humans make in some situations. That said, just as we are sometimes led astray, we can use behavioral economics to unconsciously guide people to make prosocial decisions while allowing individuals freedom and control to make decisions.

Brooks’ examples from Africa were most intriguing to me:

“Too many people die in auto accidents. When governments try to reduce highway deaths, they generally increase safety regulations. But, also in Kenya, stickers were placed inside buses and vans urging passengers to scream at automobile drivers they saw driving dangerously.”

“In Zambia, hairdressers were asked to sell female condoms to their clients. Some were offered financial incentives to do so, but these produced no results. In other salons, top condom sellers had a gold star placed next to their names on a poster that all could see. More than twice as many condoms were sold. This simple change was based on an understanding of the human desire for status and admiration.”

Now these behavioral economics inspired nudges are not going to end malaria or cure cancer, but this kind of clever policy making can have an impact. Nudges like these can get well-meaning programs–like the female condom scheme in Zambia–to perform better. And while I don’t think that a sticker encouraging Americans to yell at drivers would work in our culture, I do like how the Kenya government encouraged its citizens not to stand for dangerous behavior. At their best, nudges get people to make small, prosocial decisions at the grassroots level. Like the improvements in life that this blog chronicles, nudges bubble up from the bottom and make the world a better place.

So Much to Be Grateful For!

Significant decreases in extreme poverty, hunger, child labor, child mortality, death in childbirth, teen births (US), smoking, war, homicide, violent crime, nuclear weapons, and share of income spent on food.

Significant increases in life expectancy, leisure time, literacy, IQ scores, democracy and internet access.

People are getting taller and staying in school longer. Guinea worm is almost eradicated–and Guinea Worm is a really bad parasite–Homelessness in the US is down.

Check out 26 Charts and Maps to Be Grateful for on

Happy Thanksgiving!

Chicago: A Smarter Head on its Big Shoulders

Big Data is a revolution that businesses and some governments are embracing because of its problem-solving potential. One of Big Data’s most common uses is data collection. The low price of installing remote sensors across a wide area allows an institution to get much more fine-grained information about real conditions.

Chicago is starting a new program where it will install “hundreds of environmental sensors that will measure temperature, humidity, light, sound and cellphone signals”  around the city. If the program works as designed, major economic, safety and environmental advantages should be realized. Take snow removal. Temperature and precipitation information provided by sensors will help snow removal teams to clear only the areas that need treatment. Prioritizing roads that need treatment first will save lives. Money and resources are saved as areas that don’t need treatment won’t get it. And if less chemicals are spread on roads, there’ll be less to run off into critical waterways, like Lake Michigan.

Other smart city programs–crime prevention and traffic management to name two–have been adopted by cities around the world. If Chicago’s experiments are successful, their methods will undoubtedly be adopted by other municipalities.

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously said that “states may…serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” Cities–as Bloomberg’s New York did and now Emanuel’s Chicago does demonstrate–are also laboratories for Big Data solutions.


Car Ownership Made Obsolete?

For many of us car ownership is onerous. Some people relish having their own “wheels,” but most folks I know consider their car a very, very expensive “necessity.” They’re not buying a cherished good; they’re buying convenient transportation that depreciates rapidly and will be replaced in a few years. Car ownership ends up being one of the biggest expenses in a household budget.

And while it brings freedom and convenience, the non-monetary price is steep, too: pollution, congestion and traffic injuries and fatalities, to name the most salient problems.

A recent article in The Guardian explains the Finnish government’s innovative program to deal with the car ownership conundrum in Helsinki. The city government “plans to transform its existing public transport network into a comprehensive, point-to-point ‘mobility on demand’ system by 2025 – one that, in theory, would be so good nobody would have any reason to own a car.

“Helsinki aims to transcend conventional public transport by allowing people to purchase mobility in real time, straight from their smartphones. The hope is to furnish riders with an array of options so cheap, flexible and well-coordinated that it becomes competitive with private car ownership not merely on cost, but on convenience and ease of use.

“Subscribers would specify an origin and a destination, and perhaps a few preferences. The app would then function as both journey planner and universal payment platform, knitting everything from driverless cars and nimble little buses to shared bikes and ferries into a single, supple mesh of mobility.”

I don’t know if this system will pan out, and I’m sure there will be kinks to work out along the way. But this kind of ingenious tinkering with our resource intensive transportation system is needed. Reducing money spent by citizens on transportation is an important public good. And if this thing works it will reduce air pollution and traffic as well.

I hope it does!

Good News Slow, Bad News Fast

Why do we focus on the bad news despite the tsunami of good news? Mike Cassidy at Techno-Optimism FB group shared this article by John Stossel; it covers some important territory around the reportage of good v. bad news:

“Wars, plane crashes, mass murder—it’s easy to report news that happens suddenly. Reporters do a good job covering that. But we do a bad job telling you about what’s really changing in the world, because we miss the stories that happen slowly. These are usually the more important stories.” (emphasis mine)

What are those important stories?–“The world is less violent than it has ever been. It is healthier than it has ever been. It is more tolerant than it has ever been. It is better fed than it’s ever been. It is more educated than it’s ever been.” (Barack Obama, quoted in the story)

I’m very happy that the President is talking about the positive arc of history. This is the Golden Age. I don’t think that we live in the greatest age because we are great; we live in the greatest age because we are lucky, and in order to keep our luck, we need to keep “The Long Peace” (Steven Pinker) going, support democracy and civil society, continue health and education improvements, and do all we can to foster the rights revolution that continues to progress in these days.

Watching Progress Before Your Eyes!

While browsing TED Talks on my iPhone app I discovered the Swedish scientist Hans Rosling.

He and two colleagues have created Gapminder, a beautiful, informative, and elegant web platform for showing global development statistics. You must check this out as it shows how major indicators of development–health, GDP, infant mortality, etc.–change over time.

Now of course not all of the data sets point toward progress, but most do. The increase in CO2 over the decades is ominous and disturbing. But trends in most other areas leave much reason for hope.

Check it out!

Cameras Watching Everywhere

The valet was returning my car after I had traveled to Florida on the Amtrak AutoTrain. I asked him if I had to show him my ticket to verify whether or not Car #137 was indeed mine.

“We don’t need it. You’re being filmed.”

Like many places around the world nowadays, the Sanford, Florida, Amtrak station bristles with cameras. What do you think of the ubiquitous cameras that are filling the dark corners our world. Creepy? Invasive? Reassuring?

Even post-Snowden, I mostly embrace technologically enhanced surveillance. If I were a thief, I’d be scared $}{!+less to steal a car if I’ve been filmed from every angle. For me, loss of privacy is mostly theoretical, whereas crime deterrence is quite palpable. And if deterrence doesn’t work, the cameras will help find the jerk who stole the car.

Even though I marched against many of our wars, I don’t fear that some dark characters in the Ministry of Peace have compiled a dossier on me: I’m just not that interesting and important! A back-of-the-envelope cost-benefit analysis makes it clear to me that increased surveillance has many benefits. Have there been any major costs? Have there been victims of government surveillance?

What do you think?